Wearables and Usability Pt I

Posted in art, fashion, technology by johnsnavely on August 3, 2008

The blogosphere has probably contributed more to the culture of complaint than most other forms of media. I feel guilty for participating in it. What I’ll try and do instead is complain real quick and then talk about stuff I like.

So, continuing off the last post, what’s not to like about wearables and usability ? First off, let’s define terms.

A wearable is short for wearable computer. Generally, the term refers to electronics (sensors, input devices, displays, etc) that have been integrated into a garment that can be worn.  A simple example would be the calculator watch. I think of it loosely as the intersection between fashion and technology. Wearables might also include prosthetics, but I’d like to keep them separate for now.

Usability is a term best defined by its wikipedia entry because wikipedia not only shows the popularity of edits to the entry but also the resulting blandness of its definition. Ostensibly, usability is both a rule-set and a metric for good “user-centered” design.

So wearables, computers and clothes–two of my favorite things–should be awesome, right? Let’s start with the fact that technology and fashion were never separate entities. Why does the term need to exist? Often I see it butressing some “toaster dress” looking thing which does a disservice to the technology and doesn’t look pleasant to wear either.  I have a whole book of “art projects”, many of which are wearables, done by architecture students. I am completely guilty of this bs too. There’s a point where sticking an RFID tag inside a sock (or whatever) and having it connect to a social sock network seems like a good idea that will distract your critics from realizing that nobody wants to be sock friends. But since “social networking”, “RFID” and “Wearables” are all cool words you’ll be ok.

I’m not sure who I spoke to who to, (I think it was M), who told me about meeting with some VC’s. VC’s invest something like 90% in technology (software) and biotech. The split for one firm, as I recall, was 60% software, 30% biotech, and 10% for all the other products and startups out there (including M’s). Since we’re in a bubble, the VC’s were particularly sensitive to tech jargon: to get funding just describe your company as the “youtube of blank” or the “facebook of blank“. While this word game might have value, at some point it’s too superficial to actually generate good ideas.

Anyway, sorry for the digression. The idea of wearables is that they provide a better UI for many computing tasks than the traditional computer. But clothes have a very limited interface; with some exceptions, they aren’t like tools. On the other hand, clothes are great place to embed sensors, to gather data about a persons body, like heart rate, temperature, posture, focus, etc. And since much of what we’re looking for in the future is a more contextual UI, we’ll need to know context from more clues than just a pressure sensitive keyboard. The other place where wearables might be successful is if they dropped the usefulness idea all together. Hussein Chalayan has made some very beautiful, useless works.

(Go to 0:40)

(Go to 8:05)

If usefulness isn’t a concern, but how awesome a wearable looks is, there’s also the question of which “technology” you use. Just like every science fiction novel could be mapped to a particular kind of science (Ender’s Game/child psychology; Dune/Political Science; etc), a looser view of what’s “tech” could lead to something “fierce”, like these Barney-esque works by Lucy and Bart.

(images from

I’d like to see disposables (the sustainable kind) make their way back into the technology we hold closest to our body. I want a cell phone that I can throw away when it’s not new. (Sounds like heresy, but it’s what we do anyway…only those phones aren’t biodegradable) If there was a bluetooth headset integrated into my french cuffs, with a dongle in the cufflink, that I could dispose of as easily as a shirt I’d be happy. Or a display that washed off in the shower. (I think they might be doing something like this with makeup….)

Anyway, I’m tired so, Part II: Usability will have to come later this week.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. annie said, on August 5, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    do you know of kelly dobson’s work (or maybe know kelly dobson, as she is an MIT person)? she has the idea of a kind of therapeutic wearable devices, empathetic technologies that address social anxieties and deficits, like the external organ screambody where you can scream into a container that will hold your voice for you so you can release it at a later more appropriate time, or a dress that will puff up if you feel like your personal space is being encroached upon…
    i saw hussein chalaya’s stuff at MOCA LA and it was beautiful.

  2. John Snavely said, on August 6, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Yeah, she’s awesome! Kelly was in my performance art class my first semester at MIT. I think her work is very successful in that realm actually. ScreamBody and Blendie both really come to life in her performances with the objects. She’s very careful with the video style and lighting and even her costumes!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: